19 Nov 2020

Boeing's 737 Max cleared to fly in the US after crashes

9:13 am on 19 November 2020

US safety regulators have cleared Boeing's 737 Max plane to fly again, lifting grounding orders put in place in March 2019 after two deadly crashes.

--FILE--A jet plane of China Eastern Airlines takes off from the Shenyang Taoxian International Airport in Shenyang city, northeast China's Liaoning province, 3 April 2019.

Existing Max aircraft will need to be modified before going back into service, with changes to their design. Photo: AFP

It marks a milestone for Boeing which was thrust into crisis by the tragedies and investigations that blamed company failures for the accidents.

Its financial woes deepened this year as air travel slowed due to the coronavirus.

Existing aircraft will need to be modified before going back into service, with changes to their design.

Safety regulator, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said the clearance would not allow the plane to "return immediately" to the skies.

Alongside the software and wiring changes, pilots will also need training.

The FAA said the design changes it had required "have eliminated what caused these particular accidents".

The boss of the FAA said he was "100 percent confident" in the safety of the plane.

"We've done everything humanly possible to make sure these types of crashes do not happen again," Steve Dickson said.

As well as improvements to the plane, Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun said the company had strengthened its safety practices and culture since the disasters.

"We will never forget the lives lost in the two tragic accidents that led to the decision to suspend operations," said Calhoun, who took over when his predecessor, Dennis Muilenburg, was fired last year.

"These events and the lessons we have learned as a result have reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values of safety, quality and integrity."

The approval comes roughly a year after Boeing had first hoped, but too soon for many of the families of those killed on the flights.

An ethiopian federal policeman and an Oromo tribesman look at a memorial to victims at the crash site of an Ethiopian airways operated Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on March 16, 2019  in Oromia region. -

A policeman and a tribesman look at a memorial to the plane crash in Oromia region in Ethiopia. Photo: AFP

Some expressed "sheer disappointment" over the decision, while others said they did not have confidence in regulators or Boeing, which initially sought to pin the crashes on pilot error and is still fighting victims' families in court.

"Who's going to believe them? Not me," said Paul Njoroge, whose wife, three children and mother-in-law were killed in the Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crash.

The US is the first to reverse the grounding orders, which hit the firm around the world in March 2019. European aviation officials have said they are close to making a similar decision.

A spokesperson for the UK Civil Aviation Authority said the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was in charge of re-certification for EU member states, as well as the UK. "We continue to work closely with EASA on all issues relating to the B737 Max and any EASA decision on a return to service," he added.

Software caused planes to nosedive

The crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia came within five months of each other and together killed 346 people. They have been attributed to flaws in automated flight software called MCAS, which prompted the planes to nosedive shortly after take-off.

A US congressional report last month said Boeing's rush to production, a decision to ignore internal safety concerns and concealment of key changes to the plane, including pilot training needs, contributed to the accidents.

It also faulted the FAA for oversight lapses, including "excessive delegation to Boeing".

Congress has since approved legislation intended to reform the agency.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are parked on the tarmac after being grounded, at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California on March 28, 2019.

Boeing's 737 Max planes grounded in southern California after the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. Photo: AFP

Boeing, which has estimated the cost of the grounding at roughly $US20 billion ($NZ28.8b), still faces investigations, potential fines and other lawsuits as it tries to rebuild its reputation in the midst of what it has called an unprecedented downturn in air travel.

Before the crashes, Boeing churned out more than 50 of the popular 737 Max per month. But airlines around the world have cancelled and delayed orders since the pandemic.

Last month, Boeing said it did not expect its production rate to top 30 planes a month until 2022. It warned investors of a backlog of about 450 737 Max planes, of which only about half would be delivered by the end of next year.


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